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12: Stoic Indifference: A Barrier to Therapy?

PART II: Value of the Emotions Cognitive Therapy and the Role of Philosophy
12: Stoic Indifference: A Barrier to Therapy?
I come now to the unacceptable face of Stoicism their wider value system and their belief that everything except character or more generally rationality is in the end indifferent. Of course anyone who reached the Stoic ideal of wisdom would regard everything else as indifferent and then would be (almost) free of emotion. But Stoic sages were rarer than the phoenix.1 What I want to stress in this chapter is that the theory of indifference was not an essential part of Stoic therapy. It was one of their reasons their own peculiar reason for taking freedom from emotion (apatheia) as an ideal. I shall discuss apatheia in the next two chapters but we do not have to agree with that ideal in order to learn from the Stoics how to get rid of unwanted emotions. And in getting rid of them we do not have to resort to their theory of indifference. Before I can show this I must explain what the theory of indifference is.

The Stoics said we should give up the idea that anything matters that is not under our control.2 Control is all-important and the one thing that is under our control is our character-whether we are virtuous as they put it. This means that our happiness is under our control.3 For we can be virtuous they say even if the misfortunes of Priam befall us4 contrary to the example explicitly given by Aristotle.5 The Stoics cannot afford to admit that anything else is important or the tranquillity of the wise Stoic cannot be guaranteed.

Thus it comes about that all of the following are for the Stoics indifferent: life health pleasure beauty strength well-functioning sense organs wealth reputation and their opposites death disease pain ugliness frailty disablement poverty low repute and ignoble birth.6 What matters is whether you are virtuous and you can be virtuous while starving.
Admittedly life health and the rest are natural objectives (‘in accordance with nature’).7 Admittedly they are naturally preferred (they are proēgmena Latin commoda).8 They excite our impulses and are not indifferent in relation to that.9 Admittedly we select them (eklegesthai seligere) and they are normally to be taken (lēpta) although it would do them too much honour to say that they are to be chosen (haireta expetenda).10 Admittedly they are regarded by most Stoics as having some value or more exactly selective value (axia eklektikē)11 although the Stoic Aristo denies them any value at all12 and in Epictetus it is their indifference that is stressed rather than their value.13 Selective value is such that we should select them only with the reservation ‘if circumstances permit’14 an attitude explained in Chapter 2. All in all I think we have to take seriously the Stoics’ refusal to say that the natural objectives are actually good (agatha) or a benefit (ōpheleia) or their opposites bad.15 I have discussed in Chapter 6 to what extent Panaetius (c. 185–c. 110 BC) and Posidonius (c. 135–c. 50 BC) might have qualified the theory of indifferents.
Despite the thesis of indifference the Stoics do not wait passively for things to happen. To see this we must take into account their view of the goal or end (telos) of life. The early Stoic definition of the goal as ‘living in accordance with nature’ is refined by Diogenes of Babylon and his successor Antipater. Diogenes defines it as being rational in your selection of natural objectives i.e. the preferred indifferents Antipater as doing everything in your power (pan to kath’ hauton) to obtain these natural objectives.16 The point of both definitions is that actual success in hitting on the natural objectives does not matter. The telos is to aim right whether or not you hit. The comparison with an archer is explicit17 and it has been conjectured that it was introduced by Antipater although one of our two sources introduces it only in order to ridicule it. In fact the Stoic idea that the aim's the thing is parallel to what the English are taught about cricket: ‘The game's the thing.’ The idea is also transatlantic. For Grantland Rice speaking of American football wrote:
When the last Great Scorer comes
To mark against your name
He asks not if you won or lost
But how you played the game.18
This brings out the Stoic attitude to preferred indifferents. You should do everything in your power to secure them for yourself and others. But whether you do secure them should matter no more than whether you win at cricket. The only question that matters is whether you aimed aright. The natural objectives are merely the subject matter (hulē materia) of virtuous action.19
Admittedly certain preferred indifferents may have a special role to play for those who are progressing (prokoptōn proficiens) towards virtue. Seneca allows that such people need some indulgence from fortune.20 They need food and the liberal arts21 they need precepts22 and they may need funds23 if they are to achieve virtue. One possible way for the Stoics to give these preferred indifferents a special value would be to class them as instrumental goods (poiētika not telika) instrumental for approaching virtue. Of instrumental goods the Stoics still insist that rather than constituting a benefit (ōpheleia) they are merely ‘not other than benefit’.24 Sometimes preferred indifferents play a role for people who are not progressives. For example wealth can enable us to exercise a wider range of virtues.25 But here too the Stoics could say that its role is only that of an instrumental good. This perfectly good line of defence is however somewhat jeopardized for the case of aids to moral progress by the view ascribed to the Stoics that moral progress is itself only a preferred indifferent.26
The thesis of indifference may seem to be more clearly compromised by the Stoic view that it is sometimes justifiable to commit suicide. But in fact I think the Stoics have two different rationales for suicide and both respect the idea of indifference. Cicero tells us27 that the decision on suicide should turn on whether one has or even foresees having28 the preferred indifferents indeed a preponderance (plura in maiore parte) of them. It should not turn on whether one has the only thing that is good virtue or the only thing that is evil vice.29 Does this give a new importance to the indifferents? No on the contrary it emphasizes the importance of the act of selection and the unimportance of the things selected including life itself. The point has been made by others. Selecting death can itself be a rational and virtuous exercise while life which is disselected is indifferent.30
I think the attitude manifested by some later Stoics is different. Instead of totting up in a rather calculating way where the preponderance lies they came to list certain rather extreme circumstances that could justify suicide.31 Suicide is permitted to save one's country to avoid a disgraceful deed imposed by a tyrant or (these are the relevant cases) to avoid senility incurable disease or poverty. The inclusion of poverty as a reason is dubious:32 Diogenes Laertius omits poverty but adds severe pain and mutilation.33 We need to ask whether in this list freedom from senility pain disease mutilation and perhaps poverty has gained a new importance and ceased to be a matter of indifference. Seneca gives an answer completely different from the other Stoic one. He might by suicide put an end to senility illness or pain: not however to avoid the pain but only if the pain were an impediment to all that he lived for34 perhaps progressing or in the case of a sage even aiming aright. This rationale provides a different method of making virtue the important thing and treating pain as indifferent.
Objections to indifference
As I said I am against the Stoic thesis of indifference and I find this an unattractive side of their philosophy. It is better to treat the welfare of our loved ones as something very much more than rightly preferred even though the Stoics are right that this means incurring the risk of loss and desolation. Bernard Williams has interestingly commented that the concern of the Stoics and a number of other Greeks for self-sufficiency seems alien to us in the light of Christianity and Romanticism:
Standing on the other side of so much history above all of Christianity and Romanticism we are bound to find these therapists very strange in their aims their tone and their methods.35
None the less as already remarked we can learn from the Stoics in treating unwanted emotions without agreeing that none should be wanted. Not only are emotions quite often unwelcome: they are also quite often counter-productive. Anger or anxiety may be what is preventing us from getting what we want.
There is a further point. There are tight corners in which it can prove useful after all to follow the Stoic view that what matters in a given situation is character. It is better to seek justice for others because you positively want them to be fairly treated. But what about those rare occasions on which you can achieve justice only at great personal cost? Suppose you find it beyond you positively to want fairness for everyone at that cost? Then it is useful to fall back on the Stoic perspective and secure justice because you want to be a just person.
There are also areas in which an attitude of indifference can profitably be practised. The clearer a person is about what they really want the more likely they are to see that it can come about in different ways and so be indifferent to the chance closing and opening of alternative routes.
The objection may reasonably be felt that the doctrine of indifference is incompatible with fellow-feeling. Yet in a way fellow-feeling is a centrepiece of Stoic moral theory. For the Stoics argue that it is in accordance with nature and is right to treat all human beings even slaves as belonging metaphorically speaking in the same household (oikos) because all humans are rational. The process of coming to treat others as so belonging is called oikeioēis. The naturalness of the process can be seen in the love of parents for children.36 No doubt such untutored love is an emotion which the Stoic sage would transcend precisely because it does not exemplify an attitude of indifference. But the sage is allowed to have a corresponding eupatheia of good will (eunoia) defined as willing good to another for the other's sake. Its species include affection (aspasmos) and love (agapēsis).37 The goods which the sage wishes for others will not I think be indifferents like life and welfare but goods of character. On the other hand he or she will think it a duty energetically to pursue such indifferents as life and welfare for other people so long as God wills these and so long as they are recognized as indifferents.
Such an attitude may still seem self-centred because the sage's pursuit of life and welfare for others is treated as important while their actual life or welfare remains indifferent. But Epictetus tries to argue the other way as will be seen in Chapter 13. Not only is an attitude of indifference compatible with fellow-feeling: it is essential for it. For without this we shall be driven to squabble over indifferents in competition with those we imagine we love and shall find one wishing the other dead. We shall not truly love them (philein). True love for others on this view requires a certain detachment from things other than our own character and proairesis.38
The relation of indifference to therapy
In a magisterial phrase Bernard Williams has described the thesis of indifference as one of lethal high-mindedness:
Without some credible account [of the value we accord to Stoic indifferents] Stoicism seems attached to a lethal high-mindedness which we can hardly recognise as the materials or goal of a therapy.39
On the ‘high-mindedness’ I rather agree; what interests me is the further objection that we cannot recognize the thesis of indifference as the materials or goal of a therapy.
Let me start with the materials for therapy. The point was already made by the Stoics themselves that the thesis of indifference could not be used as materials. The only early Stoic who thought it could be was Cleanthes so Cicero tells us;40 but Chrysippus disagreed. The thesis of indifference attacks the first of the two judgements involved in emotion the judgement that good or bad is at hand. But Chrysippus we are told thought the main thing in consoling people was to attack the second judgement the judgement that it is appropriate to react.41
We have seen there are plenty of techniques for attacking the ‘appropriate to react’ judgement. One borrowed by Seneca from the Pythagoreans was to counter anger by looking in a mirror to see how ugly it made you.42 Another was to remember that you too had committed the offence you are complaining of.43 Seneca consoles Marcia by reminding her she is neglecting the living.44
Cicero raises three objections to Cleanthes’ strategy of using indifference as the material for therapy. First you could only recognize the indifference of things by becoming a wise person and a wise person needs no consolation. Secondly it is the wrong time to preach indifference. Thirdly it is not in every case true that the cause of distress is a matter of indifference. Alcibiades’ distress was caused by Socrates showing him that he lacked a good character45 the thing which really does matter to the Stoics. So Cleanthes cannot show why Alcibiades should not indulge in distress. The solution to both problems turns on the fact that there is in emotion a second judgement about reaction being appropriate. It is the second judgement that is the target of Chrysippan therapy thus obviating an appeal to indifference.
Cicero tells us in another passage that it is the second the ‘appropriate to react’ judgement that is withheld by philosophers who are progressing towards wisdom when they contemplate the fact that they have not attained it. This provides their rationale for avoiding distress. The passage runs as follows.
Surely the greatest philosophers who have not yet however attained wisdom understand that they are involved in the greatest evil since they are unwise and there is no bigger evil than unwisdom. Yet none the less they do not grieve. How so? Because to this kind of evil the belief is not applied that it is right and appropriate and a matter of duty to take it badly that you are not wise.46
I believe that this excerpt is part of a larger passage (Tusculan Disputations 3. 64–71) in which Cicero focuses his attack on the judgement that it is appropriate to react although the text has been taken differently.47 The example just given is one in a long series in which the ‘appropriate to react’ judgement is inhibited. I think Cicero's purpose in giving these examples is to show that the ‘appropriate to react’ judgement can be shed and hence that emotion is voluntary rather than natural.
It is worth quoting Cicero's main discussion of alternative therapies for grief in full. It is particularly poignant because he himself had tried them in a state of extreme distress. He describes how when already driven from public life by the civil war he lost his daughter. He found himself sobbing uncontrollably alone in the woods. He read all the philosophical advice he could and composed a Consolation to comfort himself.48 The Consolation itself is lost but in book 3 of the Tusculan Disputations he describes the therapies he tried and offers a summary which includes the comparison of Chrysippus’ preferred technique with Cleanthes’:
76. There are some who think there is only one duty for a consoler: to teach that the thing is not an evil at all as Cleanthes thinks. There are some like the Peripatetics who think they should teach it is not a great evil. There are some like Epicurus who distract from evil to good. There are some like the Cyrenaics who think it enough to show that nothing unexpected has happened. But Chrysippus holds that the chief thing in consoling grieving people if they think that by grieving they are carrying out a duty that is just and owed is to remove that belief from them. There are also some who collect together all these methods of consolation since different people are moved in different ways much as in the Consolation I threw everything together into one consolation since my mind was in a ferment and every remedy was tried in that state of ferment.
But the right time must be caught no less in diseases of the mind than in those of the body as shown by the Prometheus of Aeschylus. When he was told ‘But certainly Prometheus I think you hold that reason can cure wrath’ he replied ‘If indeed one applies the remedy at the right time and does not make the wound worse by striking it with one's hand.’
77. The first remedy then in consoling people will be to teach that there is either no evil or very little. The second is that one must discuss the common condition of human life and anything in particular there may be concerning the condition of the grieving person's life. The third is to show that it is the greatest folly to be consumed with grief when you understand that it cannot do any good. For Cleanthes offers consolation to the wise who do not need it since if you persuade the grieving person that nothing is bad unless it is dishonourable you will have removed not their grief but their folly.
But it is the wrong time for teaching a lesson. And on the other hand Cleanthes does not seem to me sufficiently to have seen that distress can sometimes be derived from the very thing that he himself acknowledges to be the greatest evil. What shall we say seeing that as we hear Socrates persuaded Alcibiades that he was no kind of a human and that there was no difference between him who had been born in the highest station and any porter and Alcibiades tormented himself and supplicated Socrates in tears to convey virtue to him and repel his dishonourable character? What shall we say Cleanthes? Surely not that there was no evil in the thing that afflicted
Alcibiades with distress? [78.] What next? What are Lyco's proposals like? He minimizes distress by saying that it has been provoked by small things not evils of the mind but handicaps of fortune or the body. But what about the thing that Alcibiades was lamenting. Did it not consist of evils and vices of the mind? As for Epicurus’ form of consolation enough was said about it earlier.
79. Not even the consolation ‘You are not the only one’ is absolutely reliable although it is much used and often helps. It helps I said but not always and not everyone for there are some who reject it. But it matters how it is applied. The first thing to be explained is how each of the people who bore something wisely bore it not the handicap by which they were afflicted.
Chrysippus’ form of consolation is the most reliable as regards its truth but it is difficult at the moment of distress. It is a big task to prove to someone while they are grieving that they are doing so because of their own judgement and because they think they ought to grieve. No wonder then that as in lawsuits we do not always take the same ‘position’ as we call the lines of argument but adapt ourselves to the timing the nature of the argument and the individual character so in alleviating distress we must see what remedy each person is capable of accepting.49
The advice of Cicero set out in a theoretical way here is brought to life in the Consolation which in the next century Seneca addressed to Marcia on her bereavement. Seneca repeatedly attacks the second judgement. Like Chrysippus he argues that Marcia is ashamed to end her mourning and would think the loss of tears a second bereavement.50 Like Chrysippus he argues that at least after three years51 the mourning is on the contrary a wrong reaction. As already mentioned it makes her neglect the living.
It is important that therapy can attack the second judgement that it is appropriate to react because that makes a wider range of therapeutic techniques available including techniques borrowed from other schools as will be illustrated in Chapter 15. Moreover since therapy does not have to fasten on the peculiarly Stoic doctrine of indifference Stoic therapies are available to members of other schools. Because of this Chrysippus himself offered to treat the emotions of people who did not accept the fundamental Stoic tenets about what was good bad or indifferent.52
Therapy has a further resource. It can attack not only the ‘appropriate to react’ judgement but also any supplementary judgements there may be. In anger the supplementary judgement is involved that the harm you have suffered is undeserved. And this judgement as well as the ‘appropriate to react’ judgement can be attacked by the reflection suggested by Seneca that you often behave the same way yourself.53
But now I want to come back from the materials to the goal of therapy. For there is a way in which Stoic therapy takes an attitude of indifference as its goal without being high-minded at all. It sometimes attacks the judgement of good or bad not with a view to producing a generalized attitude of indifference but in particular cases and retrospectively after some disturbing event has happened. Fuller illustrations will be given in Chapter 15. Epictetus says if you are stuck in a crowd think of it as a festival. This is not high-minded but an everyday relabelling technique. Ovid we shall see uses it amusingly advising you to redescribe your beloved according to whether your aim is seduction or falling out of love. In another example Admiral Stockdale freed his fellow prisoners of counter-productive guilt at having given information away by making Epictetus’ point that nothing is evil if it is not under the control of the will. Again in grief you can reflect that you are not the only one that others coped or are worse off than you. In anger you can delay your decision. In each case an attitude of indifference is the goal but as it is a particularized and retrospective attitude there is nothing lethal about it. And an arsenal of everyday techniques was assembled many of them shared among the schools to make this goal achievable.
Let me now finish with a concession. Whether the idea of indifference features as the material or goal of therapy depends in the end on the addressee. It may after all do so if the addressee is a committed Stoic trainee. Seneca's Letters unlike say his On Consolation to Marcia are addressed to someone who really does want to progress in Stoic ways of thinking. So sometimes Seneca illustrates to him what it would be like to have reached the ideal Stoic attitude of indifference54 even though much of the time he confines himself to dealing with particular anxieties. Epictetus is more severe. He is talking to trainees who have come to the school he held in exile precisely to learn Stoicism. Not all of them would necessarily survive the course to judge from Epictetus’ severity. But those who did might well have been brought much of the way towards an attitude of indifference.55 In Chapter 15 I shall describe how Epictetus’ trainees will have practised dismissing what they saw on their early-morning walk as of no concern if it was not under the control of their will. They will have reminded themselves as they kissed their family that all of them were mortal. Unlike the progressives described by Cicero they will have experienced agony (agōnia algein) at their state of character.56 Without that the lesson will have been a failure-a criterion not yet used in present-day assessment of teaching quality. Here the attitude of indifference is indeed the goal of the therapy. That it is an undesirable goal I would agree. But as to whether it is unattainable I fear that Epictetus’ methods might go a long way.